Memory  /  Comment

John Henry and the Divinity of Labor

Variations in the legend of a steel-driving man tell us about differing American views of the value and purpose of work.

When I first saw John Henry’s monument I thought he would have made a good linebacker. Over six feet tall, broad-shouldered, and thick-necked, the statue cut a profile remarkably like the John Henry cartoons I watched as a kid. Then I noticed how much he resembled one of these idealized industrial workers from leftist propaganda, which in turn made me consider how he resembled the idealized worker from right-wing propaganda, race notwithstanding. He had rippling forearms, an angular jaw, and a steely expression. If not pride, then self-assuredness. I remembered the old ads for the Works Progress Administration—the New Deal program that conscripted men to build dams and parks, many nearby—that said “Work Promotes Confidence,” as if that’s the purpose and not a side effect. The Civilian Conservation Corps motto was “We can take it!” It being hard and underpaid work. 

If the American right and left have one thing in common, it’s the belief that there’s dignity in work. The area of disagreement is whether it’s dignified to be loyal to your boss, or to your co-workers. Said differently: there may have been a real, historical John Henry, but there are as many John Henry stories as there are beliefs about labor. And we should be careful about the stories we tell. 

In Hinton, just past Talcott, there’s an old white man named Jimmy Costa who specializes in local lore and can play and sing dozens of variations on John Henry songs. Beloved by white hippies and rednecks alike, Jimmy performed at farmer’s markets and folk festivals around the region, where he played fiddle tunes, told corny stories, and sang John Henry songs. But it was another old work song that I remember most, the shoemakers’s ballad Peg and Awl

In eighteen hundred three, peg and awl
In eighteen hundred three, peggin shoes is all I see
I’m a gonna lay me down my awl, my peg and awl
They’ve invented a new machine, peg and awl
They’ve invented a new machine, I peg one shoe it pegs fifteen
I’m a gonna lay me down my awl, my peg and awl.

That shoemaker song always gutted me, probably because it reminded me of the way my dad bounced from factory-to-factory as they shuttered in the mass extinction of the 1990s. Now, I wonder why the shoemaker losing his livelihood cut as deep as John Henry losing his life? One keeps his dignity but dies, the other loses his but lives. The message is clear: Losing your job is a tragedy; dying for it is “service to others.”